NASA’s New Fleet of Satellites Offers Insight into Wild Cards of Climate Change
The administration’s proposed 15% bump for NASA’s earth science budget for next year would help fund the accelerated program.
By Paul Voosen
NASA is about to announce its next generation of Earth-observing satellites. As soon as this month, it will lay out preliminary plans for a multibillion-dollar set of missions that will launch later this decade. This “Earth system observatory,” as NASA calls it, will offer insights into two long-standing wild cards of climate change—clouds and aerosols—while providing new details about the temperatures and chemistry of the planet’s changing surface. The satellite fleets also mark a revival for NASA’s earth science, which has languished over the past decade compared with exploration of Mars and other planets.
Although officials have been planning the missions for several years, the Biden administration is accelerating them as part of its focus on addressing climate change. “Earth system science is poised to make an enormous difference in our ability to mitigate, adapt to, and plan for changes we’re seeing,” says Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s earth science division. “The pace we’re going to have to do that is much higher in the decade in front of us than the decade behind us.”
Agency spokespeople declined to provide details about the missions because they have not yet been formally approved. But at a workshop last month, Charles Webb, an associate director for flight programs at NASA, said four missions would go ahead, launching as soon as 2028—an acceleration of plans under the Trump administration, when only two missions were scheduled to begin development. “It became pretty clear the greatest science return is having all of these in operation close to each other,” Webb said. The missions lack official names, but go by the shorthand of ACCP (Aerosol, Cloud, Convection, and Precipitation), which covers two missions; Surface Biology and Geology (SBG), and Mass Change , which would measure tiny variations in gravity indicating changes in ice and water.
The administration’s proposed 15% bump for NASA’s earth science budget for next year, to $2.3 billion, would help fund the accelerated program. The increase would also be welcome news for NASA’s earth science researchers after 2 decades operating under administrations leery of climate. Jeremy Werdell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center recalls multiple attempts by the Trump administration to kill Pace, a $900 million ocean-monitoring satellite for which he is principal investigator. “You’d see the chart with all the upcoming missions, and you’d see yours isn’t there.” (The mission survived and is due to launch in 2023.) However, even President Joe Biden’s proposed investment would leave NASA’s inflation-adjusted spending on earth science below the levels 20 years ago, says Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and former NASA chief scientist. “We’re well behind where we were.”
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